No other bike reviewed on Common Tread has garnered more comments and questions regarding its reliability than the new Royal Enfield Himalayan.
Because so many people (including myself) are skeptical of the quality and reliability of Royal Enfield motorcycles, I took those questions directly to the leadership of Royal Enfield North America: President Rod Copes, Senior Marketing Manager Bree Poland and Vice President of Service Anthony Loffredo.
Suffering from years of neglect in the American market, the Royal Enfield name has become tarnished by questionable reliability, build quality, and a lack of dealer support. But the current executive team convinced me they are serious about change. They didn’t try to avoid these issues when I brought them up. Instead, they met them head on, presenting me with a picture of a brand in transition. The company is acknowledging its shortcomings and striving to find solutions that will help solidify Royal Enfield as more than a bit player in the American motorcycle market.
But how did Royal Enfield get so far gone?
The short answer is isolationism. Originally established in England in 1901, by 1955 a second manufacturing plant was opened in India to supply the large demand of the Indian population. The period from the late 1950s into the 1960s proved to be some of the most significant for Royal Enfield. It was during these years that the brand's notable Interceptor and the Continental GT were introduced. However, by 1970, the plant in England ceased operations and Royal Enfield motorcycles were produced exclusively in India, mainly for the domestic market. Because import tariffs limited competition, Royal Enfield had no incentive to update its products or improve quality. Thus, for nearly 40 years, the brand remained stagnant.
But times change and globalization led a growing list of manufacturers, such as KTM, Honda, Yamaha, and BMW, to seek cheaper labor and begin manufacturing in India. The growing middle class had new choices of reliable, affordable, small-displacement motorcycles, which directly competed with Royal Enfield. If the lack of competition caused stagnation, new competitors sparked innovation.
In an effort to compete locally, as well as globally, Royal Enfield doubled down on its investment in infrastructure and technology. Since 2013, the company has opened two brand new manufacturing facilities (there are now three factories overall, with the newest and most technologically advanced facility opening in Vallam, India in August of 2017) as well as an all-new technology development center in the UK and a second center currently under construction in India.
“For us to be a global company, we wanted to make sure that the manufacturing responsibilities and capabilities were up to par with every other motorcycle brand out there,” Poland explained. “For years, Royal Enfield was just a domestic brand in India with independent distributors buying crates of bikes and shipping them around the world, but Royal Enfield wasn't managing that. So now we look at every single aspect of a motorcycle to make sure it's good for the customer.”
For their efforts, Royal Enfield has been rewarded with monumental sales growth. 2018 will see the company manufacture nearly 850,000 motorcycles, a 2,025 percent increase over the 40,000 motorcycles built in 2010. According to Poland, India will still consume the majority of those motorcycles with Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, the United States, Mexico and Europe splitting the rest.
Despite Royal Enfield’s hyper growth, American consumers still view the brand with a skeptical eye (as seen by the large swath of doubtful readers of my Himalayan review). Their skepticism isn’t misplaced. Even with the launch of the newest and most modern motorcycle to date, there have been problems. Production of earlier versions of the Himalayan model was interrupted in April of 2017 to address a myriad of issues.
Addressing the problems that plagued the earlier versions of the Himalayan, production resumed in Royal Enfield's second factory, located in Oragadam, outside of Chennai. It is this version that we are now seeing in the United States.
It bears mention that Royal Enfield North America is only about three years old. To head the project, they invested in Rod Copes, former Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Customer Service for Harley-Davidson with a background in mechanical engineering. The fact that Royal Enfield North America was the first subsidiary of the parent company outside of India (Brazil recently became the second) should serve as an indication to the importance of the U.S. market for the brand.
Copes spoke candidly about the perception of Royal Enfield in America. If people believe there is a problem with quality, then that is a problem with quality, he said.
“We understand that,” Copes said. “And that was, in my mind, the number one challenge I had taking on this role. We’re working on changing the culture of the company from the inside out, focusing on quality and customer service. Which is why Anthony was the first person I hired.”
Copes is speaking of Anthony Loffredo, whose background, while heavily focused on service and mechanical knowledge, is also steeped in customer relations. Considering Copes' focus of transforming Royal Enfield into a customer-centric brand, getting Loffredo on board made a lot of sense.
With the parent company working on improving the quality of the manufacturing in India, it was up to Loffredo to make sure that those improvements translated to the American market. The first big project that he set out to tackle was the creation of a PDI (Pre-Delivery Inspection) center.
“The catalyst behind the PDI Center was warranty-driven, however it had less to do with warranty issues from a manufacturing or production perspective, but from a shipping perspective,” Loffredo explained. “These bikes are built in Oragadam and it's an open truck ride to the ports. And then it's a container ride across the ocean to the Port of Houston before another truck ride to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We can't ship with oil or gas in the motorcycles. So, if you run a bike over in India, and it takes roughly two to three months for that vehicle to reach us, there's a good chance for varnish from the gasoline to build up on the filter or the fuel injector, not to mention loose bolts or other parts. So, we wanted to address all those concerns.”
Every motorcycle entering the United States is now inspected and assembled by the same team in a large service facility outside of Dallas. Before Royal Enfield North America implemented this PDI center in 2016, motorcycles were shipped directly from the port to individual dealerships. Because there were no set guidelines that dealerships had to adhere to for bike preparation, the quality of the product a customer received varied dramatically depending on the dealer.
According to Loffredo, Royal Enfield North America has seen a 90 percent decrease in initial customer complaints and warranty claims since they’ve taken ownership of this process.
“Another tie-in to the PDI center is that when we find things, we log it onto a report, and that goes right back to the production line in India,” Loffredo explained. “So, it's hand in hand, we're locked together, which is awesome. If there are things they missed on the line, which is very few, we'll grab it, we'll flag it, and we'll send it back to be corrected. They're able to correct stuff and really help the rest of the world through things that we're catching. It's kinda cool.”
But Royal Enfield is projected to manufacture nearly 850,000 motorcycles in 2018. Even with the parent offices working to develop new technology centers and state-of-the-art manufacturing plants, and the North American headquarters working to establish guidelines addressing quality issues, Copes acknowledges there are still bound to be problems.
“The best thing we can do is obviously have a flawless motorcycle,” Copes stressed, “but the second best thing we can do is when the customer has a problem, we make it a great experience. And that's what we do.”
Providing this level of customer service requires a lot of attention at the dealership level. To address this, Royal Enfield is changing the utilization of its district managers. A role traditionally focused on selling product and developing the brand’s image has been expanded to address technical issues, as well. It’s their job to make sure dealerships have access to parts and resources to offer customers the best experience possible.
Those resources include two U.S.-based training facilities, available free of charge, to provide educational services for techs year round. The focus is on working with the 80 dealerships currently located in North America to provide them with whatever tools they need to improve the customer’s relationship with the brand.
“We have been working hard to change our relationship with our dealers and the way they view working with us,” Loffredo explained. “Brett Sexton is our warranty manager and in the beginning most dealers would call up, and they're ready to battle over warranty. Brett is working to change that approach. It’s more like, we're gonna take your word for it. Is it a manufacturer's defect or not? And if it is we will step up to the plate and support you 110 percent. We’ve actually changed the way that dealers call us. Now it’s ‘Hey, we have a warranty issue.’ and our response is ‘Yeah, no problem, man. Just submit it.’"
There is a genuine excitement in the voices of these executives when they talk about their brand. So often, folks in positions like these clam up at the mention of other manufacturers or potential problems within the company. Copes has clearly enabled his team to take a different approach. He doesn’t talk in numbers or projections. Instead, he tells stories of getting his kids into motorcycling and speaks about how he wants Royal Enfield to be influential in growing the sport of motorcycling in the United States.
“Siddhartha Lal, the CEO of Royal Enfield, is an amazing and strategic thought leader,” Copes tells me. “He's been thinking about this for 20 years. He's finally beginning to execute because the company's finally making money. He's investing in his vision, not just in India, but globally. It's gonna take five, 10, 20 years. This is not an overnight success, but we truly believe we can do our part in introducing motorcycling to a whole generation that otherwise would go without all that fun and enjoyment.”
Royal Enfield is a brand in transition. From development, to manufacturing, to delivery, to customer support, Royal Enfield is making the effort to right the ship. But will that be enough to overcome the negative perception of the brand and establish them as a viable player in America? After all, the American market isn’t exactly thriving.
If you ask Copes, he feels a big part of the decline of motorcycling in America has to do with the fact that motorcycles have gotten too big, too expensive, and too powerful to the point of being intimidating. And to that problem Copes and his team feel like they have a solution with a growing lineup of affordable and approachable machines. Now they just need to prove that “reliable” deserves to be added to that list of adjectives.